Controls engineers, mission-critical for digital transformation, are in short supply

Smarter workers: Developing a standardized operational technology (OT) architecture to support the new digital environment is challenging, especially with many devices with diverse protocols. Those with expertise in controls, automation, and instrumentation can help with digital transformation.

By Sean Callahan April 8, 2020

As more enterprises embark on digital transformation (DX) strategies, a standard, enterprise-wide operations technology (OT) communication architecture helps manufacturers reach full scale implementation and provides reliability and security. OT data also must integrate with information technology (IT) applications and infrastructure in ways that are not historically available. Controls engineers are mission critical to making this happen, but are in short supply, according to a Manpower Group talent shortage survey – and the shortage is expected to get worse. Although this is great news for controls engineers looking for work, enterprises must find ways to mitigate the risk for long-term success. 

Digital transformation 

Digital transformation is a broad business strategy, applicable across all industries, to solve traditional business challenges and create new opportunities through the use of technology. It requires acceptance of new ways of working and delivering value to customers. 

According to a McKinsey Expert Survey, 70% of industrial organizations consider digital manufacturing at the top of their operational strategy. Despite its strategic importance, and more enterprises tackling the challenge of digital transformation head on, many have failed to realize the value at scale and are stuck in what McKinsey refers to as “pilot purgatory. 

Why is it so difficult to get it right?  

Connectivity challenges 

Collecting and contextualizing real-time data from the factory floor to where it is analyzed is missioncritical to any digital transformation initiative. According to Deloitte, advanced connectivity is becoming the linchpin to digital business. With many different devices with diverse protocols, developing a standardized OT architecture to support the new digital environment is very challenging.  

Many enterprises have historically relied on a blended connectivity approach, connecting individual devices as needed with adhoc solutions, determined by whatever worked best at the time. This has resulted in heterogeneous environments, siloed data, unconnected machines, and architectures that are difficult to understand and maintain. 

Complex and heterogenous production environments are making connectivity one of the most difficult aspects of digital transformation. Even when machines or controllers are connected to existing applications, the data is often siloed, making existing connectivity methods ineffective in accessing the data. Further, even if there is connectivity throughout a production environment, security risks need to be addressed before creating connectivity between the IT/OT network. 

Future talent challenges 

A shortage of qualified software engineers is further complicating digital transformation initiatives. According to Boston Consulting Group (BCG), “In the U.S., the demand for software engineers in the auto industry is expected to increase 30,000 which may outpace degrees by six times exacerbating the industry’s already significant labor shortage.”  

These numbers are for the U.S. automobile industry alone. As more enterprises embark on their digital transformation journeys, the rising demand for control engineers, combined with the labor shortage, increases risks and could have a major impact on the overall success of these projects, as well as the enterprise as a whole.  

Mitigating the talent risk 

It’s a risk to not have enough engineers with expertise in automation, controls, instrumentation, and the software, systems, and networks that integrate with them. Five ways to mitigate that risk follow.  

  1. Bridge the OT-IT gap:According to LNS research, forming a cross-functional team of IT and OT subject matter experts has proven effective in bridging the OT-IT gap in digital transformation initiatives. Having OT experts working closely with IT teams to develop the project vision, path, and strategic roadmap to success up front provides a holistic understanding of the challenges of architectural requirements and required connectivity. In addition, understanding the value and return on investment (ROI) the project brings to the enterprise provides meaning to the employees and supports high-level decisions on the appropriate amount of resources that need to be allocated to the project. 
  2. Implementation speed:When considering technology solution partners, the plan should consider the speed of implementation. A project plan that anticipates years to complete increases the risks of project success and employee burnout. In addition to mitigating risks, a plan with a faster time-to-value provides a better ROI and improves a company’s competitive advantage. Solution providers should also have expertise in digital transformation, industrial connectivity, strong partner relationships, and the resources and support to guide a successful transformation.  
  3. Network architecture simplification:Simplifying the communications architecture with a standard, reliable enterprise-wide connectivity solution will also help mitigate this risk. Relying on a heterogeneous connectivity environment, especially one that includes internally developed solutions, makes maintaining a reliable, secured, scalable OT network difficult. In a homogenous environment, controls engineers can also spend less time on unexpected troubleshooting, establishing individual connectivity to new devices, and maintenance. This reallocates their time to more important strategic initiatives and expedites digital transformation projects.  
  4. Invest inemployee developmentMany different training programs exist to educate and train the current employee base and bridge the skills gap. In addition to training employees, some programs provide additional benefits. One program, for example, provides free training to U.S. military veterans with the skills to succeed in advanced manufacturing roles. Programs like these may help companies address future talent shortages and prepare their organizations to succeed in years to come. 
  5. Get help:Partnering with external resources can help bridge the gap to develop a standard, reliable architecture that drives success and mitigates risk. Working with consulting groups, OT integrators, and Internet of Things (IoT) integrators will add critical resources and expertise along the digital transformation journey. Some OT system integrators are adopting new strategies to expand their service offerings to support digital transformation initiatives. In addition, more IoT integrators are adding connectivity to broaden their technical expertise.  

Sean Callahan is senior director strategic marketing, Kepware, PTC; Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media, 

KEYWORDS: Digital transformation, filling the skills gap 

Operational technology talent shortages 

Digital transformation challenges 

Tips to help fill the skills gap. 


How are technologies helping you fill the digital transformation skills gap? 

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PTC provides more on the LNS research.  

Author Bio: Sean Callahan is senior director strategic marketing, Kepware, PTC.